- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
The unionization drive at three Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York quickly inspired baristas at other locations across the country to organize their stores: around 150 Starbucks locations nationwide have now filed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections.
Laila Dalton was one such worker inspired by what she saw in Buffalo. Dalton, who is nineteen, has worked at Starbucks locations in Phoenix since she was sixteen years old. She and her coworkers began organizing a union shortly after the Buffalo campaign went public. The day before they planned to announce their union drive, Dalton was called into a conversation with management, which she recorded. The video shows a supervisor listing a host of supposed violations on Dalton’s part, yet she and her coworkers attest that she had never previously had any infractions and is known to work overtime to keep the store afloat as a shift supervisor.
The workers believe the incident, along with one against her coworker Alyssa Sanchez, was retaliation for legally protected concerted activity, so they filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against Starbucks over its actions. On March 15, the NLRB issued a complaint against Starbucks for retaliation. The Board has previously charged Starbucks with retaliation against workers in Philadelphia, but this is the first such complaint in the current Starbucks campaign. The regional office can now prosecute the case, and the company will have the opportunity to appeal its decision to the full NLRB in Washington DC.
Dalton says management continues to intimidate workers in her store as the date of their NLRB election, scheduled for April, approaches. Another video, this one from March 12, shows a supervisor speaking to Dalton about a new alleged infraction, as well as her receiving a call from one of the company’s Ethics and Compliance Officers, who tells her he is investigating her workplace conduct.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Dalton about her years at Starbucks, how she feels about the NLRB finding substance to her complaint, and her desire to unionize the food industry. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve worked at Starbucks for around three years, well before this organizing campaign began. How did you feel about the company before the past few months?
Starbucks is the first job I’ve ever had. I came in as a minor — my stepbrother has been working at Starbucks for five years and he helped me get a job. When I started, Starbucks didn’t take training seriously and so I didn’t take the job very seriously either. My first day, instead of doing computer training like everyone else does. I watched one person on the drive thru take one order and then they said, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” I’m a minor and I don’t have coffee history. I didn’t know what a cappuccino or a latte were, I just knew that my mom gets them every day. So, no one was properly trained and that made for a toxic environment where while there were some good people, some people didn’t know what they were doing.
No one was supporting one another and you just felt bad about yourself because you kept messing up. For maybe my first three months, I didn’t take it seriously, and I was also a minor working nearly ten-hour shifts sometimes. Now as a supervisor, I’m given all of these guidelines for minors that I had never previously been given. I basically trained myself as I went, and I ended up becoming a barista trainer and then a supervisor. My own experience means that my goal was always to make people feel supported.
As I grew, I realized I was getting taken advantage of, that I was working much harder to step up my game, to get recognized, and to help others, and it started to just be expected of me. Eventually I went to a new store that opened in late 2020, and we had a great manager there. But she ended up moving and we got an outside hire, fast-tracked manager, and that’s when things went downhill.
So the union drive takes off in Buffalo. How do you decide that you should organize too?
We had this bad manager come in, and we realized that even if things at one store are good, we need a union because things can change. At our store, I was aware things were getting worse and I tried to reach out to our district manager. I kept speaking up and nothing changed. I was standing up alone and that wouldn’t work, so I was about ready to quit. Eventually, my coleader, who is also now a supervisor, talked to me and said, “There is one way we can make a change, but it’s going to take commitment and a lot of work.” He asked me if I’d heard about Buffalo, and I said I’d heard some stuff about it, and that night, he explained everything to me. I’m still learning about unions, but that’s when it started.
In the video from January in which a supervisor is reprimanding you for various supposed infractions, you become very upset because you felt like you were being unfairly targeted for organizing. Now, the NLRB issued a complaint against Starbucks for its actions against you. How does that feel?
So many coworkers, past and present because this job has such a high turnover, are texting me saying “I never thought Starbucks would be held accountable. I never saw this coming.” Being a part of this movement and actually being the first complaint against the company feels unreal because I’ve been dealing with this for three years. I’ve been constantly trying to speak up, I’ve been constantly taken advantage of and overworked as a minor. I’ve been forced to put myself in bad positions, mentally and physically. So I’m glad to be one of the faces of the complaint. I have so much motivation and I’m really driven when it comes to this.
I will give it my all no matter what ends up happening because my goal is not just Starbucks, but for people to stop saying we can’t expect more from the food industry. I’m tired of hearing that because everyone deserves to be treated the same. Everyone deserves to be treated like a person. We’re all equal. It hurts me because there are so many nice, kind people in this world. I can say one little thing at the drive-thru and it can make someone’s day. So when people in customer service aren’t happy with their working environment, their pay, it makes it very hard to give them the proper experience. So, winning that complaint makes it all feel worth it. I’m so happy that I never gave up.
I saw a more recent video of you being reprimanded again, this time for wearing earbuds in the store. What is the environment like there now, as you approach your NLRB election?
A manager from another store is scheduled at ours a lot now, and our district manager has been there a lot lately too. There’s definitely intimidation. They’re trying to make us feel uncomfortable and with the supervisors, they’re overstaffing us with people, which makes things difficult just like short-staffing does. Our environment doesn’t feel comfortable or happy. We have to watch every little thing we say. We have to watch every little thing we do.
For example, one of my coworkers was making a tea, and you’re supposed to shake the tea ten times, but once you’ve done it a lot, you’re not counting. So, my coworker is making tea and my manager picks on them down to the number of shakes for a tea. Then they ended the day saying things like, “You better not do that again.” It’s said in a somewhat joking way but the truth is, you can’t really tell. And meanwhile, our district manager is there from 8 AM to 4 PM, pulling baristas aside to have one-on-one talks, asking them about their experience and if anyone is harassing them.
You’re voting on unionizing in April. Given the situation in your store, how are you feeling about the vote?
I’m excited. It’s been a really long road and Starbucks threw a lot of obstacles in our way — but they never fully got in our way because our crew is too strong. We have too much motivation and passion for what we do, and we love each other as people. We may be a little exhausted and ready for this to end, but we’re also ready to keep on putting up a fight. My committee is so strong and every single day, I feel like they get a little stronger.
Is there anything else you want people to know, be it about you, your store, or what you and your coworkers are trying to do by unionizing Starbucks?
Well, my goal is to unionize the entire food industry. Starbucks is a big corporation, but there are so many other fast-food places. There are so many health hazards that happen on a day-to-day basis because of understaffing or improper working conditions — you’re serving customers and cleaning and getting sanitizer and washing your hands and it’s just very hard, and I think that’s something people deal with not only at Starbucks but, say, McDonald’s and Wendy’s too. So I want the whole food industry to know that it’s possible to unionize.
I want people to learn what a union is and know that they have support if they want one. Many people have to live paycheck to paycheck. I’m fortunate right now because I live with my parents, but $15 an hour is not enough. People are basically slaves to their job and they can’t even take care of their family because they have to work 24-7. Unionizing is the only way for people to be able to support their families and themselves. So I truly want the whole world to be educated on unions, because I wasn’t.